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The aam Anna aadmi

Why the middle class is furious and why the Congress has only itself to blame?

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
August 20, 2011 12:49:18 am

At least,two things about Anna Hazare’s movement are indisputable: its dominant anti-Congress impulse,and its distinctly middle-class character. It is evident that middle India has turned against the Congress. Of course,the Congress apologists will say that it doesn’t matter. That middle classes do not vote governments in or out,the poor in the villages do. Also,those voters in villages think differently. These Congressmen are wrong on both counts. Because it is a new India in a new,hyper-connected world. The size and the power of the middle class,after 20 years of reform,is enormously greater than the old-school Congress politician (which is how,funnily,you would now describe most of today’s younger Congressmen) would imagine. The Congressmen are also the least likely to acknowledge that the anger that they now face on the urban street is a calamity they have themselves worked so assiduously on inviting upon themselves.

In its seven years in power,the Congress shunned the urban middle classes so much it has even stopped being on talking terms with them. The party can be forgiven for reading the 2004 verdict wrong,believing that the poorest Indians,irritated by the BJP’s India Shining,voted the NDA out. But its refusal to read the 2009 verdict for its aspirational impulse was not merely poor political judgment. It also resulted from a cynical and intellectually lazy thought process. Inevitably,it developed into an auto-immune syndrome where the party has been busy preying on its own government and its own new vote-base among India’s growing aspirational classes.

For seven years now,the Congress never bothered to send even a thank-you card to the middle classes that voted so overwhelmingly for it — in fact,in 2009,it voted for Manmohan Singh who was really the party’s first,genuine middle-class icon. Worse,its own povertarian basic instinct had so locked its mind it failed to read the verdict correct. Its Rajya Sabha-ist megaphones continued to boast that its NREGA,loan waiver,increased OBC reservations,cynical oil subsidies and other such populist policies had won it a second term in power. If it continued to reach out to the poorest Indians,an Indira Gandhi kind of sweep was guaranteed for Rahul in 2014. It,therefore,did nothing for the urban middle classes,its leaders never spoke to them,and even indulged in rhetoric that made upwardly mobile,hard-working urban and semi-urban Indians think they were immoral or guilty. That they had no idea that a majority of their countrymen were still stone-poor,nor did they care. As if these aspirational Indians were criminals who vacuum-cleaned all the spoils of economic reform while a vast majority had been left behind. With Sonia and Rahul Gandhi not speaking to them,a sullen prime minister in a shell,and the NAC and other durbari civil society stalwarts and Congressmen constantly maligning reform and the government’s policies,the middle class felt orphaned,alienated and rebuffed. Until they found their new interlocutors,and leaders,in Team Anna.

The Congress may not have erred like this if it looked at facts. In 2009,nine of our states had below poverty line (BPL) populations higher than the national average of 37.2. These nine states,Bihar,Chhattisgarh,Jharkhand,Madhya Pradesh,Maharashtra,Manipur,Orissa,Tripura and Uttar Pradesh,together account for 247 seats in Lok Sabha. Together,these have for more than 80 per cent of India’s extreme poor. How many of these seats did the Congress win? Only 63,or just a quarter. Out of the rest,the less poor,and thereby more urbanised and aspirational states,it won its remaining 143,or almost half the seats on offer (296). Look at the party’s performance in the poorest states of India (BPL figures in parentheses): Orissa (57.2),6 out of 21 seats; Bihar (54.4),2 out of 40; Chhattisgarh (49.4),1 out of 11; and Jharkhand (45.3),1 out of 14. If NREGA,loan-waiver and nanny-state yojanas were winning the Congress votes,then it would seem the benefits of those schemes were going to richer,less-deserving states. Even in Gujarat,in spite of Modi’s sway,the Congress’s strike rate was much better,at 11 out of 26. It is in keeping with the trend because Gujarat has been one of our fastest growing and urbanising states. Similarly,while the Congress clings to the delusion that rural India loves it,the fact is the party,or its allies,swept every major city in India with the exception of Bangalore. But its basic,outdated,socialist and povertarian instinct rendered it incapable of acknowledging,or even understanding,this massive churn in Indian society,and electorate.

So like a child that prepares for the exams by rote and regurgitates the answers he has mugged up,whatever the question,the Congress also started to repeat the old,inherited explanations for its 2009 victory. Worse,it did not want to acknowledge that an Indian electorate which,buoyed by a new wave of aspiration,had left the politics of grievance behind was responsible for its success. The real reason behind their 2009 victory was not in their inherited political scriptures,syllabus or textbooks. Following 2009,the party’s political discourse started dipping more and more into socialist and rural-ist old-speak. Two general elections and so many state elections had shown that the one thing aspirational India cared about was education,and yet all reform in higher education stopped. Hear the voices now from Anna and his crowds. The complaint you hear most often is of bribery in school and college admissions. Nobody of consequence in the Congress has promised to quadruple seats in higher educational institutions,or set up a thousand new Navodaya Vidyalayas,or even double the capacity in school-starved metros by simply allowing greater FSI so schools could add more floors to their buildings: look at the way the process has been blocked by the DDA and the MCD in Delhi,for example. Our cities are rotting,power supply is a disaster,urban reform is at a standstill. Education,training,recreational facilities,all the things that enhance your quality of life and satisfy this new ambitious urban upsurge are in extreme short supply,and therefore make a huge flourishing market for rent-seeking,and cronyism.

At the same time,Rahul,Sonia and increasingly even a frustrated PM and his key cabinet ministers have stopped speaking to this rising new India. It is almost as if when the country is becoming so decidedly aspirational,and has blessed it already with two consecutive terms in power,the party is failing to re-connect with grievances of the past. This is the classic definition of a political auto-immune disease.

The times when you could rule India without its urban middle class are now over. Because the key pivots of democratic governance,the bureaucracy,the judiciary,civil society activists,and of course the media,all come from this class. If you alienate it,there will be hell to pay. This is a disaster the Congress and the UPA have brought upon themselves,and so early in their five-year tenure.

sg@expressindia.com

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